Thanks, Presiding Officer,
I will give an update today on the latest COVID situation.
I can confirm that the Cabinet met this morning, and decided not to make any immediate changes to the current regulations in place.
I will also give an update on certain other issues, most notably the mitigations in place for schools, including of course our approach to vaccination of 12 to 15 year olds, and the issue of a vaccine booster programme, which we have received final JVCI advice on this morning.
Firstly, though, to recap on today’s statistics.
3,375 positive cases were reported yesterday - 11.4% of all tests.
1,064 people are currently in hospital with COVID – 16 more than yesterday.
And 89 people are receiving intensive care - that is one fewer than yesterday.
Sadly, a further 21 deaths have been reported in the past 24 hours, and the total number of deaths under the daily definition is now 8,263.
And, as always, I send my condolences to everyone who has lost a loved one.
Good progress continues to be made in the vaccination programme.
As of this morning, 4,144,904 people have had a first dose and 3,788,551 have now had both doses.
95% of people over 40 are fully vaccinated with two doses now, as are 73% of 30-39 year olds, and 60% of 18 to 29 year olds.
Around 76% of 18-29 year olds have, though, had a first dose, so the proportion in that age group who become fully vaccinated will continue to increase in the weeks ahead.
In addition, 65% of 16 and 17 year olds have now had the first jag - which is five percentage points higher than at this time last week.
Although the level of infection in Scotland remains too high, there are continuing signs that the recent spike in cases is now slowing down.
Indeed, we are now seeing early signs - not just that the rate of increase is slowing - but that cases are now actually starting to fall slightly.
This can be seen in the last three weeks’ data
In the week to 28 August, there were an average of 5,651 new cases a day – which was an increase of more than 80% on the previous week.
In the week to 4 September, average daily cases were 6,290 – still an increase, but one of just 11%.
However, in the seven days to 11 September – so the most recent seven-day period - cases have fallen to an average of 5,506 per day – which is 12% lower than last week.
It might also be worth providing some detail on the age breakdown of cases.
In the past week, more than 70% of cases have been in the under 45s.
And that’s consistent with the pattern we’ve seen throughout this latest wave.
However, the picture varies across different age groups – that said, there are broadly positive signs now in all of them.
Two weeks ago - in the week to 4 September - the number of cases in the 0-14 year old band rose by 51%. However in the past week, cases in that age group have fallen by 5%.
Amongst 15-24 year olds, cases fell by 16% two weeks ago, and have now fallen even further – by 34% - in the most recent week.
Two weeks ago, cases in the 25-44 year old age group rose by 7%, and last week, they fell by 14%.
Finally, the number of cases amongst the over 65s has risen slightly, but again the rate of increase has slowed down over the past week.
This most recent data underpinned Cabinet’s decision earlier today not to reintroduce any restrictions.
I am very grateful to everyone – organisations, businesses and individuals – who has taken extra care in recent weeks to try to stop this spike.
It does seem that these efforts are making a difference.
That said, of course, our position does remain challenging.
Even though new cases have fallen, they remain five times higher than at the start of August.
Universities are now returning for a new term. That is very welcome – but it also creates some additional risk, and I will say more shortly about how we are working to mitigate that risk.
Overall, though, the key point is this – the recent fall in cases is very welcome, but we cannot take it for granted. We must continue efforts to keep cases on a downward track.
The NHS is already under considerable pressure and any further rise in cases would intensify that.
As we know, vaccination has significantly weakened the link between cases of COVID and serious health harm from COVID.
The proportion of people with the virus who end up in hospital remains much lower now than before the vaccine programme started.
But current case numbers reflect how transmissible the Delta variant is.
So as we can see already - even a lower percentage of a large number of cases results in a high number of hospitalisations.
To illustrate that, on 20 August, there were 312 people in hospital with COVID. Today, there are 1,064.
The number in intensive care has also increased – from 34 on 20 August to 89 today.
Of course, these figures do not include people who don’t need hospital care, but nevertheless suffer long COVID.
It is also important to remember that the pressure that the NHS is experiencing falls on staff who have in many cases been working flat-out since the start of this pandemic.
And it comes at a time when the NHS is working to catch up on a backlog and care for everyone who needs it, not just COVID patients.
The Government continues to work closely with health boards to help manage these pressures.
But – as has been the case throughout the pandemic – everyone has a role to play.
At the start of the pandemic, we constantly emphasised the need to “protect our NHS”.
That is still necessary, and should give all of us even more incentive to get vaccinated, test regularly, and take all the basic precautions that we know can slow down transmission.
An additional reason for continued caution is that it helps protect those most at risk.
The UK Government announced earlier today that it will no longer use its Shielding Patient List.
In light of that - and to avoid any mistaken assumption – it’s important for us to confirm that the Scottish Government is not following suit at this stage. We will continue to use our equivalent list – which is the Highest Risk List.
We have used this throughout the pandemic to communicate with all those at highest risk and ensure that they have advice and support.
We will continue to keep this under review, but for the moment we believe it is important to retain it.
I will now provide a brief update on some specific strands of work.
Firstly, I can confirm that Cabinet Secretaries are continuing to engage with representatives from business, the public sector and wider civic society to encourage maximum compliance with the mitigations still in place.
I will be taking part in a roundtable meeting with a range of stakeholders immediately after this statement to underline the importance of this work.
I am, again, grateful to all businesses and organisations for the efforts being made to follow and promote measures like the wearing of face coverings; good ventilation and hygiene; and wherever possible, continued home working.
In addition, as I mentioned earlier the university term is now starting – colleges began their return a few weeks ago. And we have been working closely with universities, colleges and the wider sector to make the return as safe as possible.
As a precaution at this stage, colleges and universities won’t be holding large in-person lectures for now.
Instead, there will be a mix of online and in-person learning – with institutions themselves deciding the level of in-person teaching that they will offer during this term.
In addition, physical distancing will remain in place on campuses and face coverings will be required in indoor public spaces.
We are also – of course - encouraging students to get tested regularly. Test kits are available on campuses, and students who are moving to term-time accommodation should book a PCR test before making that move.
Above all, we are strongly encouraging students to get vaccinated if they haven’t done so already.
Mobile vaccination units are being deployed in universities and colleges during freshers’ weeks, and vaccination will continue to be made available throughout the term.
Health Board web pages will contain details of local drop-in clinics and also clinics operating within colleges or universities.
We are also continuing to work with local authorities to make schools and childcare centres as safe as possible - for example, though support for the use of carbon dioxide monitors and improved ventilation.
We have also received further advice from the Advisory sub-group on Education, and I want to take the opportunity today to highlight two points arising from that advice.
First, we indicated at the start of term that secondary schools pupils would need to wear face coverings in class for the first six weeks of term, subject to a review at that point.
Given the continuing high levels of infection still being experienced at this stage, the Advisory sub-group has advised that this requirement should remain in place until the October holidays, and be reviewed again then.
I know how unpopular this is with many pupils and I completely understand why.
But for now, it remains a prudent and a necessary precaution.
Second, we intend to clarify an aspect of guidance on contact tracing in schools, to help ensure fuller understanding of the process.
There is no change in advice for close contacts thought to be at high risk of having COVID. They will continue to be advised to self-isolate until they have returned a negative PCR test. For children and young people, a high-risk contact is most likely to be a household member, or someone they have stayed overnight with.
However, we will clarify guidance on the letters that schools send to lower-risk contacts. These letters should be sent on a targeted basis to those who are most likely to have had low risk contact with someone who has tested positive. They ensure that parents, staff and pupils are aware of those cases - and the letters offer advice on issues like looking out for symptoms, and using lateral flow testing.
Our updated guidance may mean, for example, that it is appropriate to send letters to the classmates of a pupil who has tested positive, but not necessarily to everyone in their year group.
We hope that better targeting will help reinforce the importance of the messages in these letters while minimising undue anxiety.
In addition, the advice in the letters will be strengthened in one respect.
They will recommend - to primary and secondary school pupils and staff who receive them - that a lateral flow test is taken before they next return to school. That test should be in addition to the regular twice weekly lateral flow testing which is recommended for all secondary school pupils and staff.
All of these measures reflect our commitment to prioritising the wellbeing of children and young people - and our determination to minimise disruption to education.
That consideration was also, of course, central to the advice that the Scottish, Welsh, and UK Governments - and the Northern Irish Executive - received yesterday from our Chief Medical Officers.
Members will recall that the JCVI had concluded that the benefit of vaccination – the health benefit - for 12-15 year olds did outweigh any risks, but that because this was marginal they could not recommend a universal offer of vaccine to this age group on health grounds alone.
However, they indicated that it would be appropriate for Chief Medical Officers to consider whether any wider issues might tip the balance in the other direction.
The CMOs have now done so and concluded that vaccination could reduce disruption to education and that, taken together with the health benefits previously identified in the JCVI advice, extending the offer of vaccination to all 12 to 15 year olds is justified.
Taking this broader view of the benefits and risks of vaccination, the CMOs are recommending that 12 to 15 year olds should be offered one dose of the Pfizer vaccine.
This advice has been broadly endorsed by the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health.
I am very grateful to all of the four Chief Medical Officers for assessing the evidence on this issue with such pace and also with such rigour.
I can confirm to Parliament today that the Scottish Government welcomes and accepts this recommendation. We believe that vaccination of 12-15 year olds is important and we will therefore move to implement the advice as quickly as possible.
Our supplies of vaccine are adequate to allow us to do this.
It is, of course, important to stress how important informed consent is.
I know that many young people and their parents will have questions.
Material will be made available online later this week.
It will be appropriate to both young people and adults. It will seek to answer questions and provide balanced information to help young people and their parents make informed choices.
And I can confirm that from Monday 20 September, so Monday coming, drop in clinics will be open for any 12 - 15 year old who has read the information and - in discussion with parents and carers – decided that they do wish to be vaccinated.
It will of course be appropriate for parents or carers to accompany their children to clinics, and vaccinators will be on hand to answer any further questions or address any concerns.
And then, starting in the following week - so week beginning 27 September - letters will be sent to all 12 to 15 year olds inviting them to an appointment at a drop-in centre or vaccination clinic.
Again, parents and carers will be invited to accompany their children. And again the appointment will include an opportunity to ask questions and discuss concerns.
Finally, after the scheduled community sessions, there will be a programme of vaccination in schools, to ensure that anyone who hasn’t been vaccinated, and who decides that they want to be, gets a further opportunity.
I know that these are important decisions for young people and their parents, and that many will have questions. I would encourage everyone to read the information that will be provided, and do not hesitate to visit a drop in clinic to ask any questions or raise any concerns.
Vaccination is a vital part of our overall protection against this virus. That is why it is important to support people – perhaps especially young people - to make informed choices that they feel comfortable with.
In addition to the CMO advice on 12-15 year olds, we have received this morning the final JCVI advice on a vaccine booster programme.
This is in addition to the third doses already being offered to people who were severely immunosuppressed or immunocompromised at the time of their first or second vaccination.
I can confirm that the Scottish Government is also accepting this advice, and again we have adequate supplies to move ahead with this.
The booster programme is intended to prolong the protection that vaccines provide against severe COVID illness.
It will run alongside our biggest ever flu vaccine programme – since, of course, both of these programmes are important for individual and for public health. Wherever possible, eligible people will be offered COVID and flu vaccines together.
Booster vaccines will be offered to all adults over 50; to frontline health and care workers; and to younger adults with certain health conditions that put them at higher risk; and to adult household contacts of people with suppressed immune systems. The JCVI has also advised that there should be an interval of at least six months between a second dose and a booster dose.
So let me now give a broad outline of the order in which we will now move to implement the booster programme. And of course we will set out more details shortly.
Frontline health and social care workers will be able to book their booster appointment online through NHS Inform from Monday 20 September – so that again is Monday coming.
Also from next week, residents in care homes for older people will be offered both flu and COVID booster vaccines.
Adults aged 70 or over, and everyone aged over 16 on the highest risk list will be contacted very shortly, either by letter or by their GP.
Other eligible groups – that’s all adults over 50, all those 16 to 49 with underlying health conditions, adult carers, unpaid and young carers, and adult household contacts of people who are immunosuppressed - will be able to book online from October.
These two announcements today, Presiding Officer, represent a very significant, and a very welcome, extension of the vaccine programme - and will help us considerably in our ongoing efforts against this virus.
So - to anyone eligible for vaccination - please do take up the opportunity.
The final point about vaccination I want to touch on very briefly is certification for certain venues – which, of course, Parliament approved in principle last week.
We are now working with businesses, events organisers and sports governing bodies to finalise the detail of the regulations and sector-specific guidance.
COVID certification has of course already been introduced in many countries across Europe. Indeed, many of them have already gone much further than we are proposing.
We know that this is not a magic wand - but we do believe that as part of a package of measures, it can help reduce transmission while keeping our economy and our society open, which is of course what all of us want to see.
Presiding Officer, I will close by emphasising again the key things all of us can do to help, and to ensure that we keep infections on a downward track.
Firstly, as I’ve already been talking extensively about - please get vaccinated if you are eligible and you haven’t yet done so.
Secondly, please continue to test yourself regularly with lateral flow devices. You can order these through NHS inform or collect them from a local test site or pharmacy.
And if you test positive, or you are identified as a close contact, or if you have symptoms of COVID, please self-isolate, and book a PCR test.
And thirdly and finally, please continue to comply with the mitigations still in place.
Please wear face coverings in indoor public places, such as shops, public transport and when moving about in hospitality settings.
Think carefully about the number of contacts you are having - and perhaps reduce any that are not strictly necessary.
Meet outdoors as much as possible.
Indoors, open windows if you can.
And, although it’s not the law anymore, try to keep a safe distance from people in other households - especially when you are indoors.
And remember to continue to wash your hands and surfaces thoroughly.
All of us this - as we can see in the most recent data – really does make a difference. So please stick with it and let’s get cases down even further.
Thank you, Presiding Officer.
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